Notebook: South Carolina frontcourt tests Notre Dame

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

TAMPA, Fla. – Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw’s biggest fear – South Carolina’s depth and talent in its frontcourt – almost haunted her second-ranked Irish in Sunday’s first NCAA Women’s Final Four semifinal at Amalie Arena.

With 6-5 freshman A’ja Wilson and 6-4 sophomore Alaina Coates creating fits coming off the bench for Notre Dame’s young frontcourt of 6-3 sophomore Taya Reimer, 6-3 freshman Brianna Turner and 6-2 freshman Kathryn Westbeld, McGraw figured the Irish front would face its stiffest test of the season.

Somehow, even with Turner and point guard Lindsay Allen fouling out and Reimer saddled with three fouls along with senior reserve Madison Cable, the Irish survived for another day, 66-65, to move into Tuesday night’s championship game for the second straight year against top-ranked Connecticut, an 81-58 winner over Maryland in the second semifinal.

“I thought Bri and Taya really played well, especially in the first half,” McGraw said. “They battled. We didn’t get as many rebounds as we wanted to, but I thought they played hard.”

Turner and Reimer each had 10 points in the first half and finished with 17 and 16, respectively, while grabbing eight and six rebounds, respectively, with three blocked shots each.

“We knew they were a really good team inside, that they get a lot with their interior play,” Reimer said. “Our game plan was to try and contain that and try to shut them down and on the offensive side just attack them.”

Wilson finished with 20 points on 8-of-11 shots coming off the bench, and Coates had 12 points on 6-of-9 shooting with both pulling down nine rebounds. Aleighsa Welch had a double-double with 10 points and a game-high 14 rebounds.

“Kathryn comes in and gives us great minutes in the post,” McGraw added.

Westbeld finished with six rebounds and four points in 20 minutes of action.

To her credit, Westbeld credited her teammates and then gave kudos to the players she and the others battle every day in practice – Diamond Thompson, Markisha Wright and Kristina Nelson, who sat out her sophomore season while recuperating from a shoulder injury.

“They worked us hard all week,” Westbeld said.

Senior class

The most successful senior class in Notre Dame women’s basketball history gets to close out its career in the championship game for the second straight season and third time in four years.

Cable, Wright and senior guard Whitney Holloway are 143-9 (.941) in their Notre Dame career, easily surpassing last season’s group of guard Kayla McBride, Natalie Achonwa and Ariel Braker, who went 138-15 (.902) with four trips to the Women’s Final Four, a number Cable, Wright and Holloway matched Sunday with the victory over South Carolina.

“A nice way to end my career,” Holloway said.

Going for 700

In addition to getting Notre Dame to its fifth national championship in her 28th season, McGraw is on the verge of her 700th victory at Notre Dame. If she and her Irish beat her old Philadelphia rival Geno Auriemma and his Connecticut Huskies Tuesday night, McGraw will be 700-220 with a second national championship to go with her 2001 title.

Only Notre Dame’s long-time fencing coach, the late Mike DeCicco, has more victories than McGraw. DeCicco’s teams went 774-80 from 1962 through 1995 while winning three national championships.


This will be the second meeting of the season between the Irish and Huskies. The first one, back on Dec. 6 in South Bend, ended with UConn knocking Notre Dame from the top spot of the rankings with a 76-58 victory in the Jimmy V Classic game.

“Tuesday night is not going to be any fun,” Auriemma said after his team’s victory over Maryland put the Huskies at 37-1 coming into the game against the Irish, now 36-2. UConn is on a 36-game winning streak, while Notre Dame has won 22 in a row since its 78-63 loss at Miami on Jan. 8.

The victory gave Connecticut a 32-11 lead in the series. It was UConn’s third straight victory in the series after four straight Irish victories and seven Irish victories out of eight prior to the current Huskie string.

It was Connecticut which knocked off the Irish 83-65 in the national semifinals on April 7, 2013 in New Orleans, and UConn beat Notre Dame in last year’s championship game, 79-58, in Nashville, Tenn.

That’s the only time the two teams have met each other in the final game of a season.

Notre Dame’s Taya Reimer (12) gets pressure from South Carolina’s Aleighsa Welch (24) during the NCAA Women's Final Four basketball game on Sunday, April 5, 2015, inside Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN